Vancouver’s Leaping Thespians have been producing theatre for and about the LGBTQ community since the 1990s. The company will once again present an original work, How The West Was One, at The Cultch at the end of March. In a special two part series we talk with the co-writers and directors Leigh Burrows and Karen White. First up is our Q&A with Leigh.
Tell me about How the West Was One – what can audiences expect?
Audiences can expect a lot of fun and laughs from this ridiculous comedy. Audiences will enjoy a campy version of the western genre with an all female lesbian twist. It’s a funny and “feel good” show with a good message at the end. There’s a shoot-out, there’s a card game, there’s girls looking tough with guns and toy horses. There’s also singing and dancing with original music and lyrics.
Where did the idea for the show come from?
We wanted to add a western sketch to our last original show, “Once Upon A Lesbian.” Karen showed up with a list of character outlines, and as we came up with plot ideas for what could possible happen between these characters, we quickly realized this was destined to be a one-act play. So for this play, we used the sketch from our last show, built the play around that and added in some other characters.
An obvious take on “How the West Was Won” – can you explain the replacement of the word “won” with “one”?
A traditional western is often about the lone hero who rides into a dusty town to have a shootout with the bad guy. In our story, there is no hero, just an unlikely bunch of flawed, albeit lovable, characters, who at first at odds with each other, find a way of coming together at the end. Our play is about the creation of a “chosen family” in the little town of Bridesville through the sharing of a common vision.
This is your, I believe, fourth original piece, and a comedy. Why a comedy?
It took me two years to sit myself down to watch “Schindler’s List”. Although an important movie, I knew its potential of sending me into a depressive state of mind. People love to laugh and it’s therapeutic. From a marketing standpoint, comedies are easier to get bums in the seats. Through our past comedies, we’ve found that we are able to still convey a poignant message through laughter. We make people laugh by laughing at ourselves, poking at society, and in this case, playing up a type of genre. If people leave the theatre saying, “That was really funny, and you know, it got me thinking…” then we’ve done well.
The last three of four shows by Leaping Thespians are original pieces – why write your own shows?
There are just not a lot of available lesbian plays out there (if anyone has one to offer, email us at email@example.com). The majority of lesbian plays that are published are from the 80s, and many are political and outdated. The playwrights of that time did really important work and I am blessed to be able to peacefully walk in the path they’ve created. I personally don’t feel the need to rage. There are also other reasons why a particular play won’t work for us: too many characters, not enough characters, way too complicated of a set for our shoestring budget, or it just doesn’t speak to us… So it set us off writing things that will work specifically for our group. Through this I have found that our work is important. I think we have found a niche. Yes, our plays are female focused, yes, they have lesbian content, but the themes are universal: such as the concept of cyber-dating and cyber identities, or a future society where people only respond to each other through the use of hand-held devices, or in this case, the concept of creating a ‘chosen family.’ I find that our audience, whether straight or gay, man or woman, leave with the thoughts, “That’s so true…” People in the publishing/entertainment businesses spin off stories all the time. How many “romcoms” have been made just for enjoyment? But these stories don’t relate to us gay people. The gender wars/battle of the sexes does not apply to our gay culture. I want to produce something local and gay for us gays because we need entertainment too.
Do you find any difficulties as co-playwrights? What is your writing process like?
Usually many in our group come together to write snippets that we later thread together with a storyline. It’s not the most organized approach but it has worked in the past. With this play, most of our group was still recovering from our last show, so Karen and I, being the keeners that we are, picked up our pens and started writing. Karen and I have complementary brains. There’s a lot of, “Yes! and … Yes!” between us. Together we are a run-on sentence, an endless flow of ideas. If there’s ever a clash, we go into discussions of that would work best for the story. It really is that easy between us. It’s about the show, not our egos.
You are also co-directors of this show – tell me about your directing process. Do you find it easy to work together? How do you resolve any differences?
In our last original play, we had several directors, but had many stand-alone sketches that could be directed by different people. This play is a one-act with one story line and there’s now a two-headed monster directing the actors. Karen is the matriarch in the group and the experienced, multi-award winning director. If Karen is lit up about a directorial decision, I’ll take back seat, unless I’m so emblazoned with passion I cannot help myself. In this case, we’ll try both options out and the group, as a whole, will decide. We are all disgustingly diplomatic. (Perhaps we should evolve the Leaping Thespians into some sort of political party? ) It’s never come to a shoot-out between Karen and me, or even worse, a ride-off on our toy horses, luckily, because Karen would win that game every time. We’ve had an actor reluctantly back out during rehearsals, so I had to get on stage and act for this play. So being in several scenes, I am unable to direct these ones, because I cannot see what the audience sees. It has put a damper on my directorial debut, but it has allowed me at least to try on the director’s pants part-time, and I’ll be the first to tell you, its way easier to be an actor.
What do you hope audiences will walk away with after seeing How The West Was One?
Other than an abdominal cramp from laughing so much, I want straight people to walk away with knowing how decently human it is to be gay. And I want gay people to walk away with that feeling too. Yes, the Leaping Thespians are here, some of us queer, and in many ways we are much like you. I just want people to come see something lesbian. Not because it’s shocking, or promiscuous, (okay maybe a bit promiscuous), it’s not angry, it’s not man-hating, it’s not political, and it’s not about women rubbing their boobs together (well, not really). There’s a certain lesbian stereotype that I’d like to dismantle. We are not any of these things. Well, what are we? You’ll have to come find out.
What’s next for Leaping Thespians?
We will be entering this play in this year’s Vancouver Zone Festival, April 25-30th at Bernie Legge Theatre, in New Westminster. If we win, we will be tearing up the trails, taking this play to the western scenic town of Kamloops for the Theatre BC Provincial Mainstage Festival, running July 1- 9th. Karen is leaving us to go travelling for a year. In her absence, we have many sketches we could resurrect and produce, hopefully, with other local groups. Any group interested in working with us or having us open their show, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. There’s also interest to re-mount, “Once Upon A Lesbian” as it was a popular show. We have also laid some framework for a new original one-act that we can continue to work on. Part of the reason I took on being a co-director for this show was to be able to feel the weight of a play on my shoulders. With Karen and I doing the directing, sets, costumes, props, you name it, together, I can say that I know have an idea. It keeps me up at night, but I wake up every day excited to play “play”. I hope to be able to keep the group grooving until Karen’s return. We are still building a name for ourselves. We’ve been gaining a good reputation for ourselves. We’ve won awards for our shows. We need to keep moving.
How The West Was One
23 – 26 March & 30 March – 2 April 2011
The Leaping Thespians present their original comedy How The West Was One, a hilarious soap opera is about the BC gold rush of the 1850’s with an all-female twist. The play is set in the saloon of the fictional town of Bridesville, founded and run by Miss Kitty. With an iron fist she manages her daughter Ramona, the town drunk, the card shark and the Outlaw, but is she a match for the femme fatale who sashays into town for the big blackjack game? There is singing and dancing in the saloon, a blackjack game, a hold-up, a shootout, and of course, romance in typical Leaping Thespians playful girl-on-girl style. Tickets $17-20 at www.leapingthespians.ca or http://tickets.thecultch.com or 604-251-1363.